Dateline: Noon Sunday, November 13, 2011, NAS Pensacola, FL with the Curtiss Crew
Andrew King lands on Runway 07R, rolls out to just past mid-field. He landed about a third of the way down the runway to reduce taxi-time and distance, passing the intersection of the North-South, the modern control tower to the east, Air Operations buildings opposite and rolling beyond the Blue Angels ramp and hangars into a place lost in time. Turning right onto the outdoor ramp of the National Naval Aviation Museum sheds an immediate 50 years from history, even more if you look closely at the cocooned and semi-derelict relics waiting in repose on the crowded ramp. Each of the hundred or more planes stored there – if only they could tell their own stories, of oceans flown or wars fought; of peaceful missions and lives preserved; of hours upon hours with Navy crews, training and preparing and waiting at the ready. Perhaps a few of these veterans could boast of carefree flights from first to last, but most would nod and shake their gray beards, the lines and wrinkles foretelling the failures of men and machine in countless aerial “situations”. The simple fact of their presence this day on this ramp, mute testimony to the flying skills, sheer luck, engineering reliability or outright audacity of the planes and crews who survived each mission’s challenges. In amongst this venerable collection, the 1911 Curtiss replica putters up a narrow ramp, headed to the front of the line, that shell and gravel ramp leading into the sanctuary of the Museum. Eventually those much more deserving birds, sunning on the storage ramp, will have their place inside, restored or at least preserved for posterity so that aviators a hundred years from now can view their ancestral DNA – if there are aviators in 100 years, of course. And, if the Museum can sustain its growth through support from today’s aviators.
The Curtiss is headed for the entry door to the newest display hangar for a winter’s stay. Shutting down just before the gravel ramp, we are joined by Rick and his restoration crew, who volunteered to come in on a Sunday expressly to manage the hand-over of the Curtiss to the Museum’s care. The six or eight of us lugged the Curtiss up the ramp and across the parking lot, tail first to a massive set of hangar doors. The warning klaxon sounded and the doors rumbled slowly open, revealing a movie-set-perfect backdrop within. Suspended over the parting doors, a gigantic American flag appeared to unfurl as the doors rolled over their tracks. The Curtiss slid into the slot below, accepting the flag’s invitation and nearly disappearing underneath the dazzle of sun-sparkled red, white and blue. The horns and the rumble of doors brought out a crowd of Museum visitors and staff, photos were taken, and rather quickly, the klaxon sounded and doors rumbled tightly closed. We stood outside, the flag and the Curtiss headed into another world, the Curtiss Crew headed away.
For thirteen months, 120 flight hours and over 4500 air miles, the Crew had planned and plotted and executed a hundred or more missions with this one relic of early Naval Aviation. In less than an hour on that Sunday, she was removed from our care and the freedom of flight we breathed into her bones. She’ll stand for a winter, at least, quietly listening to the Docents’ tales of her meaning and exploits. Perhaps she’ll cough a few oil drops onto the gleaming floor to remind one and all that she was built to fly and did. We can only hope the cleaners leave the spots as testimony.
Too soon, Tom and Pat Lavery departed, headed for the airport and DC by jet. Andrew, Mark Holliday, Steve Roth and I retired to the RV chase and plotted our 900 mile route to Virginia. We needed a rest stop enroute, choosing Birmingham, AL because there is a museum there with some old airplanes we had never visited, the Southern Museum of Flight. Rumor had it there was a replica Headless Curtiss and some vintage birds in the collection worth seeing. So, Birmingham it was to be.
On the drive up the interstate, not much was said and certainly no notice was taken of the dates and our destination. We were just tired, as usual, from the full plate of this final air show. On the way up Andrew checked the website for SMOF and found they would be closed Monday, but he also found a phone number for the Museum Directors. A call and an explanation early Monday morning gained us access to the closed Museum and pretty much free run of the place, guided by the two Directors, both of whom had followed our Curtiss adventures as part of the Centennial of Naval Aviation celebrations.
I might have commented before, in the haze of memory and rush to write about thoughts provoked by flying this Curtiss, about an oddly surreal or weirdly coincidental occurence, something guided not by our deliberate actions, but steered by chance or a stroke of luck. Like most old and semi-bold pilots, I live by a pretty pragmatical code – a duck’s a duck and so forth. What happened that Monday in Birmingham, though, gave us all pause to reconsider. And the loop was closed for us with the touch of one piece of ancient steel.
The date that Monday – 14 November, 2011, the time about 11:30, the place, a neat Museum in Birmingham, AL. The four of us, the core of the flying side of the Curtiss Crew, were ushered into the pioneer hall of the Museum. A Headless Curtiss replica hung over our heads, an original, restored Huff Daland Puffer stood beyond in a crop duster’s diorama, silver doped and resplendent in its Delta crop dusting service logo, balloon tires marked with the red clay of the cotton fields she spent her working life protecting.
But all that eye candy in the dimly lit room scarcely mattered because we were drawn to the floor along the back wall. There, 20 some feet long was an iron ship’s nameplate escutcheon, spelling out in rusty and worn letters: USS Birmingham.
Slipping under the stantion ropes, we touched this one remaining piece of the history we had been living these past thirteen months, on the very day and nearly the same hour, one century after Eugene B Ely flew from her decks. Was it fate or blind chance that steered our course to this place on this day, to touch the ship where this all began? Ernie Gann pondered a pilot’s superstitions in prose far better than mine. We’ll settle for the realization that “something” guided us into the circle we spent many years forming and closed the loop for us that day.
How in the world did this nameplate literally drop at our feet? The USS Birmingham, CL-2, was commisioned in 1908, when Glenn Curtiss was first spreading his wings with aeroplanes of his own design. On November 14, 1910, in Hampton Roads, off Naval Station Norfolk, one Eugene B Ely flew into the record books by successfully launching from her forward deck in the Curtiss Pusher, “Albany Flier”. In 1914, she sailed to Mexican waters, launching two Curtiss Model F flying boats on Naval Aviation’s first mine suppression mission off Veracruz. World War One combat service was mostly as convoy escort off Gibralter. In 1923 the aging Cruiser was mothballed and then cut up for scrap in 1930. Just by chance, one of the salvage yard crew was a young man from Birmingham, AL. He had the foresight to torch off the massive escutcheon and nameplate, cutting it into three chunks and shipping it to the city fathers. Without a better place, the plates remained stored for decades in the attic of the city library, ignored but preserved nonetheless. With the recent opening of the Southern Museum of Flight, the nameplate was rescued from oblivion and placed in the Pioneer Hall with a large ship’s model of CL-2, complete with the wooden bow ramp and Ely’s Curtiss flying off into history.
Had we known before that USS Birmingham still existed, we probably would have made a run down in the beginning just to keep the timeline in perspective. However, I like this happenstance even more. Back four years or even 13 months ago, we probably would not have understood fully the impact that ship, that day and that flight had on history and what it would come to mean to us. Driving away from our Curtiss with the CoNA celebrations at an end and 15 successful events in the logbooks, the abrupt and unexpected leap back brought us magically full circle. It was a chilling and thrilling way to fade away home.